LePage administration continues information freeze about new psychiatric unit

Good morning from Augusta, where the Department of Health and Human Services is moving toward building a new forensic unit near the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center without sharing its plans with lawmakers or the city of Augusta.

The issue has been simmering for months but came up again Thursday when Democratic members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee — along with Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta — convened to discuss this issue and others. The rest of the committee’s Republicans refused to participate in the meeting because, according to Republican Sen. James Hamper of Oxford, it would turn political in nature too close to the November elections. Democrats noted that the budget committee has met in September in the past.

DHHS and the LePage administration have indicated that they intend to build a 21-bed high-security forensic facility near the state-run hospital for potentially violent patients, many of them remanded to DHHS custody by the court system because they were found not criminally responsible for crimes because of a mental illness. State mental health administrators have struggled to find an appropriate way to care for such individuals, whose treatment often differs from that of other people receiving care at Riverview. Building the facility, which would then be run by a private entity, according to lawmakers, is part of the administration’s plan to regain certification from the federal government and protect $20 million in annual funding that comes with it.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, along with lawmakers, said they have been asking DHHS for details about the plan but so far those requests have been ignored.

“That lack of clarity is what makes us feel like [the state is] building a mini jail on the grounds of Riverview,” said Mehnert to lawmakers on Thursday.

Katz said he is withholding judgment on the administration’s plan, for now.

“This may be the best possible way to deal with this problem but when we’re talking about a facility, that as I understand will have 14-foot walls with barbed wire, the decision to turn that over to a private entity without legislative approval [is of concern],” he said. “I’d like to think we’re all on the same team here in regards to treating mentally ill people. … We all want exactly the same result.”

Democratic Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, who co-chairs the committee with Hamper, questioned how the estimated $3 million to $5 million cost would be funded without an appropriation approved by the Legislature. She said a list of questions to the LePage administration has so far not been answered.

DHHS brought the project to the Augusta Planning Board earlier this month but it was tabled because the board also wanted more information, including about the financing.

DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards ignored questions from the BDN on Thursday but she told Mal Leary of Maine Public that the department believes it has the authority to proceed with the project with existing funds — and without legislative approval. — Christopher Cousins

Poliquin chastises bank CEO, draws fire from Cain

As Democrats continued to lob attacks about his past work on Wall Street, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District on Thursday added his voice to a chorus of criticism against Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf over the bank’s creation of unauthorized customer accounts to meet sales quotas. Stumpf is the same guy who was torn apart recently by Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“The probability will be high that your organization and the actions of you — this systemic pattern of misbehavior and gross management, and it looks like fraud — is going to find its way to the community banks and the folks that rely on them in rural Maine,” Poliquin said Thursday during hearings on the bank’s misdeeds. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

Poliquin’s comments drew attention from some national media, but Democrat Emily Cain, his opponent in the nationally targeted 2nd District race, dismissed them as too-little, too-late political posturing. Her campaign issued a statement noting that Wells Fargo has contributed to Poliquin’s campaign.

“Poliquin is on the side of the banks until there’s a camera on him,” said Cain in a news release.

With recent polls showing the incumbent ahead, Cain’s backers have intensified efforts to paint Poliquin, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, as being in the pocket of the financial sector. The latest variation on that theme cites his vote for a bill that would have capped funding for Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which regulates banks like Wells Fargo.

In a district struggling to cope with paper mill closures and a bleak economic outlook, both campaigns are trying to stake claims to champions of working people while portraying their opponent as extreme. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the president: President Barack Obama and his entourage departed early this morning from Israel where they were mourning the death of former Israeli President Shimon Peres. According to CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, Air Force One was scheduled to stop in Bangor for refueling with Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry on board.  
  • Abortion rallies: Reproductive rights advocates are scheduled to hold rallies today in Portland and Bangor in opposition to the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which withholds insurance coverage for abortions for women who qualify for Medicaid and other federally provided plans. The 11:30 a.m. rallies in Bangor’s West Market Square and Portland’s Monument Square are organized by the ACLU of Maine, the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center, Maine Family Planning and Planned Parenthood of New England.
  • Job training grant: U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have announced that the Maine Department of Labor will receive $9 million from the U.S. Department of Education to expand vocational and educational opportunities for students with disabilities. The money will be used by the Department of Labor and Jobs for Maine Graduates to serve at least 200 students a year with the goal of placing at least 90 percent of them in post-secondary training or employment within a year of finishing high school.
  • New CD2 ad: As Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump takes heat for his “fat shaming” of women, the National Republican Campaign Committee is attacking 2nd Congressional District Democratic candidate Emily Cain in a new ad. The ad is based on a 2007 vote she took in the Maine Legislature in favor of a bill designed to track obesity in Maine schools by, among other things, weighing students. Cain’s campaign previously dismissed similar claims as a distortion of her position.
  • Dustbin dry: Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared five counties in southern Maine as a disaster area due to the ongoing drought. Cumberland, Androscoggin, Oxford, Sagadahoc and York counties are all part of the disaster area, which makes farmers in those areas eligible for federal aid, including emergency loans, from the Farm Service Agency. In related news: A rainy forecast for the weekend has been amended to “a few drops” on Sunday.

Reading list

IT’S NOT FAIR: dwarfed by an 11-year-old

I took my sixth-grade son to a basketball skills clinic yesterday that was open to grades four through eight. The coach came over as he was lacing up his shoes (which are within a half size of mine) to introduce herself.

“What grade is he in?” she asked.

“He’s in the sixth grade,” I said.

“Oh good, so he can participate,” she said.

I’m of average height — about 5’ 9’’ — and my boy, who has grown about 3 inches since spring, is already topping 5’ 6’’. It’s unfair that my kid will outgrow me in middle school. How did this happen?

However, the upside dawned on me as he was lacing his $90 Nikes: If he keeps growing I’ll soon have lots of awesome shoes.

Here’s his soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.